It’s a sure sign that I’m trying to do too much when I start losing things. It means I’m becoming anxious and stressed. I lost my watch once, though I wasn’t too worried. I had also lost my keys around the same time, and they turned up the same day. I kept an eye out for the watch…looking in some obvious places, by the kitchen sink, or in the powder room, around the desk in my office, it wasn’t in any of the obvious places. After two or three days, I expanded the search. I looked between the seats in the car, under the sofa cushions, in pockets of clothing…it was nowhere to be found. I emptied the contents of my brief case…turned it upside down and shook it over the kitchen table. Loose change spilled out, some breath mints, an Advil tablet…and then, to my complete surprise, a key fell out. It wasn’t just any key. It was the key to my safe-deposit box. I didn’t even know it was missing. I went to the place I normally keep the key – and sure enough it wasn’t there (as if the key might have somehow cloned itself and jumped into my briefcase on its own). The loss of that key was far more serious than the loss of the watch, yet I found it while looking for something else. Eventually the watch, turned up too. Like I said, I had a lot on mind.
As I mentioned in the last post, it was around the same time that I went on retreat to the Isle of Iona. I think it was to collect my scattered thoughts or maybe to lay them aside. I had this same problem on the trip. I was having trouble keeping track of things. All those travel documents and return trip tickets…they were in 6 different compartments in my luggage, and still more pockets of my jacket. Where were my binoculars? Where did I put my camera? I was continually looking for my field guide. What should I do with my room key? I was unsettled - scattered. On the second day, as I was getting a better feel for the climate, I noticed how bone-chilling the wind could be, so I bought a pair of wrist warmers from a local merchant. They were like mittens with the fingers cut off. They were knitted locally using the wool of the sheep I was getting to know. The wool was died in a wonderful blend of colors. They seemed a unique, local item - invented out of necessity, and useful for me, a birder, who likes to have the ends of my fingers free to focus binoculars. So I was pleased with my first purchase. But within three hours of buying them, I lost one. What good is one mitten? The rest of my stay, for six more days on Iona I spent retracing my steps, up the road to the north end of the island, over to the hermit’s cell a mile to the west…searching for what I had lost.
As I walked that ancient rock, the scriptures that kept coming to me were the Psalms. A verse or two here, or an entire Psalm there. It felt like I was living the Psalms in Technicolor. It was the experience of the loss of the mitten that brought the 42nd Psalm to me. It wasn’t just the mitten, really. It was a lot of things, a lot of lost things… because at its heart, the 42nd Psalm is about lost things.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
A deer stands by a familiar watering hole that has gone dry…longing to have a drink. The deer longs for what is lost, namely water. Bodies of humans and animals both need water to live. The lack of water, more than anything other than a breath of air, is experienced as an urgent need. A body can’t live without water. The psalmist says, as it is with this thirsty deer, so too the soul longs for God, when God feels far away. A soul cannot live without God. That’s the truth affirmed in this psalm. And it’s not just religious people, or spiritual people who need God, every soul needs God, like every body needs water. Some people don’t realize what’s missing in their lives, but it never-the-less drives their lives, it disturbs their living…when they are living without God, like the un-satiable thirst of a body without water – that is what they seek. The advantage of the psalmist is that he knows what’s missing. He understands that dissatisfaction with life is really a thirst for God; for that which is missing.
Sometimes, in some of the seasons of our lives, even the most faithful person can experience an absence of God. It can be brought on by life changes: the death of a loved one – a spouse, a parent, a child. It can happen with end of a relationship, or a serious illness, or some other trauma. It can also happen by just going about day-to-day routines, when the spiritual side of life gets neglected and distractions and busy-ness take over. Psalm 42 speaks of the soul’s longing – when we find ourselves lost.
The psalmist is in the midst of a deep personal struggle – one of my favorite verses, is verse 7 “deep calls to deep” – I’m not sure what it means, but I know it’s true. Somehow the deepest within us calls out to the deepest within God, and the reverse is also true: the deepest within the heart of God calls out to the deepest part of us. The psalm is about trying to understand the despair of seeking what is lost in this life; and at the same time trying to hang on to and bring this faith in God to bear upon the situation. So while the Psalm begins with loneliness and a yearning for the familiar, and it speaks of the pain and blessing of remembering the past, it ultimately affirms that hope and healing and wholeness have their source in God.
On one of the many pages in my travel journal, I made a list of things that were missing on Iona. The first few items on the list were these: the mitten, the internet, my cell phone. The mitten was an annoyance, the cell phone and internet would have been helpful in finding a way home through the volcanic ash cloud. The list continued: a corncrake (a rare bird), an otter. These were longings…they weren’t really “lost,” but rather desires of my heart that I knew would be wonderful to find. After that, this “lost” list got decidedly heavier: I listed that I’d lost my home, my security, my way. I was feeling most definitely a stranger in a strange land. The people were kind enough, but it was a community that was there long before I was, and it will be there for generations after I’m gone. I was not at “home” but a stranger. And I was really stranded, if only for a few days. It’s somewhat unnerving to not know how or when you’ll come home, even when you’re stuck in a beautiful, place.
Most profoundly, it was there that I first realized I’d lost my way. How was it that Easter, the most joyous day of the Christian year had become for me, an enormous source of stress and tension? Somehow the process of Easter had obscured the joy of Easter.
Somewhere in the midst of my sojourn, I also began to keep track of things “found.” This list was on the other half of the page with things lost. I found just about everything I was missing, except the mitten. I found rocks and new birds including the corncrake, I found some new friends in unexpected places…and I found my way again, back to the heart of God, back into the joy God intends for me.
Our souls thirst for the living God. We were made this way…and our longings will always lead us back. It’s never God who’s lost, but we who’ve lost our way.